By Jeff Griesch
Nebraska Athletic Communications
It’s a new season with a new squad. Follow along as the Huskers recap 2020-21 and invite you to meet some new faces along the way.
Last season was a special one for Whitney Brown. The 5-8 true freshman out of Grand Island Northwest High School was a difference-maker in her first year on the Nebraska women’s basketball team.
A recruited walk-on, Brown was hoping to compete for some time on the court, but knew the odds were against her when she chose to join the Huskers. The hard-working, fearlessly competitive guard didn’t worry about the odds, she only focused on the opportunity.
With multiple injuries ending the seasons of a trio of Nebraska guards prior to December, Brown stepped squarely into the backcourt mix. The Huskers were without Taylor Kissinger, Nailah Dillard, Trinity Brady and Makenzie Helms (transfer) by the end of Nebraska’s opening weekend of the season, and the Big Red was also waiting for graduate transfer Mi’Cole Cayton to be cleared to play while recovering from offseason surgery.
Not only were the Huskers down five guards from the summer roster, early in the first half of NU’s fourth game of the season at Creighton (Dec. 14) freshman guard Ruby Porter was knocked out of action with an ankle injury.
All of the early season backcourt bad luck for the Big Red left Nebraska with just three true active guards – Sam Haiby, Ashley Scoggin and Brown – for the rest of the game against Creighton and NU’s first Big Ten Conference road trip to No. 15 Indiana (Dec. 20) and Purdue (Dec. 23).
Although the numbers swung in Brown’s favor to gain significant playing time in mid-December, she had already proven herself in preseason camp and Nebraska’s first games of the season. In an opening-game win over Oral Roberts, Brown made her Husker debut with five points, four steals and an assist with no turnovers in 15 minutes of action.
After playing five turnover-free minutes in a win over NCAA Tournament-bound Idaho State in Game 2, Brown contributed five points, including her first career three-pointer, to go along with two rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes of a Big Ten Conference-opening win over Illinois (Dec. 10).
“Looking back on last season, I think an opportunity arose to give me a shot to play and I knew that I had to just go out there every game and give it the best I could,” Brown said. “A big reason I started to gain some confidence on the court was because of my teammates and coaches. Each game, I knew they had my back and I couldn’t have done any of it without them.”
After playing 19 minutes at Creighton, Brown stepped up to score six points and grab three rebounds without committing a turnover in 26 minutes on the road at No. 15 Indiana. The Hoosiers went on to advance to the NCAA Elite Eight.
By the time the Christmas holiday break arrived, Brown had already spent nearly 100 minutes on the floor for the Big Red through six games.
“In her first season as a Husker, Whit established herself as a dependable worker and contributor,” Nebraska Coach Amy Williams said. “Her work ethic and determined approach to getting better ensured that she was prepared when opportunities arose, and Whit made the most of those opportunities.”
Although Porter returned from her ankle injury and power forward Isabelle Bourne was spending time on the wing for the Huskers, Brown had proven herself as a reliable player in the rotation. With 2021 on the doorstep, she planned to keep contributing.
On her 19th birthday, Brown helped Nebraska to a 65-63 upset of No. 15 Northwestern at Pinnacle Bank Arena by burying a pair of three-pointers and grabbing three rebounds in 16 minutes against the defending Big Ten champion Wildcats. Brown’s threes came on back-to-back shots in a 32-second span in the second quarter that erased a six-point Northwestern lead.
“I 100 percent feel I gained more confidence as the season went on,” Brown said. “A lot of the strengths I have in basketball all stem from my siblings and parents over the years teaching me things. My sister was a fierce competitor who taught me to never give up no matter what, and my brothers always made me stronger and more competitive and fearless from just playing with them and them not taking it easy on me.”
After celebrating her birthday and New Year’s with a win over No. 15 Northwestern, the youngest of Mick and Lori Brown’s six children (Jamie, McKenzie, Bobby, Brock, Brook) opened 2021 with three points, two assists, a steal and no turnovers in a hard-fought 53-50 win over NCAA Tournament-bound Rutgers (Jan. 3).
A week later, she added three points, three assists and a steal in 22 minutes in a 68-64 road win at No. 23 Michigan State (Jan. 10).
Brown then erupted for her biggest performance of the season, pumping in a career-high 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including 4-of-8 three-pointers, in a career-high 28 minutes in a rousing 63-55 Husker win over No. 15 Ohio State at Pinnacle Bank Arena (Jan. 16). Brown’s effort against the Buckeyes came as one of just seven active Huskers, after Bourne was injured in the closing seconds of the win at Michigan State.
Brown’s play against the Buckeyes capped a 4-1 record over a five-game stretch for the Huskers against nationally ranked teams in which she averaged 5.2 points, 1.4 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 17.8 minutes per game. She also totaled four steals while committing just two turnovers against the most aggressive defenses in the Big Ten.
“I definitely grew as the season went on, really getting a feel for college ball, making me less nervous to have the ball in my hands and more confident to make those right decisions and passes,” Brown said. “Something I’ve worked on over the years is to have that sort of calmness with the ball and to not become frazzled when the game becomes intense.”
While Brown was achieving her dream of playing for her home-state team and contributing in big ways to Husker victories, the COVID-19 pandemic did limit the full experience of her success by keeping her friends and family out of Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“It was very weird to not have family and friends supporting from the stands every game, but I know they were cheering from their homes,” Brown said. “I think that also made it special though, knowing they still found ways to support me, even in weird times like last year. Basketball is a big thing in my family, and my siblings and parents are my ‘why’. They are the reason I am even able to wear ‘Huskers’ across my chest and to have them sitting in the stands will be the best feeling.”
Brown continued to provide steady contributions for the Huskers throughout her first season. She appeared in all 26 games, and after Porter was injured in the Big Ten Tournament, Brown earned her first college start in Nebraska’s first-round Postseason WNIT victory over UT Martin in Memphis (March 19). Brown tied her career high with four three-pointers to finish with 12 points against the Skyhawks and tied another career best with five boards in a career-high-matching 28 minutes.
Brown finished her freshman season with Nebraska’s best assist-to-turnover ratio (27-12) and second-best three-point percentage (.377, 20-53).
“Whit has been, and will continue to be very important to our culture and the team-first mentality we celebrate in our program,” Williams said. “She is an incredibly valued member of Husker women’s basketball.”
As surprising as the success of Brown’s debut season may have been, she immediately turned her focus to improving for her second season while helping the Huskers climb the Big Ten ladder in 2021-22. With Nebraska carrying a full roster of 16 players, Brown knows she is going to have to earn every second of playing time this coming season.
“It is definitely a big change to have a full roster, but that’s something I’m glad to have as more motivation,” Brown said. “It has made me work harder, and I’m willing to do whatever I can to improve to try and earn a spot on the court.”
Brown has never been one to shy away from a challenge or the hard work it takes to succeed.
“I definitely grew up in the gym either practicing on teams, traveling to my siblings’ games, or just going in for fun to get some shots up. I was always there, always watching and picking up on things that I could learn,” Brown said. “I believe the reason I am able to play at this level is because of all the hours I got to practice. I am very thankful for that.”
Brown’s love for the gym, her teammates and Nebraska basketball will make her an essential ingredient in the success of the Huskers in 2021-22, regardless of her playing time.
“As long as I keep working hard and learning from my teammates and coaches, I hope I can play a crucial role in our team’s success this year,” Brown said. “Chemistry will be a huge thing. I am looking forward to competing and growing closer to these girls. I can tell already it’s going to be a great season filled with lots of special memories. I personally will do my best to get the team to keep growing stronger together in any way I can.”
And she will be ready to play in front of her family, friends and all of Nebraska’s fans back at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“This year will be awesome just to have my family sitting in the stands. I cannot wait to have a normal season with all the great Husker fans. It will be a surreal feeling because there truly are no fans like Husker fans,” Brown said. “The amount of support I received from fans all over Nebraska was so amazing. I can’t wait for the excitement of each game and the roaring crowds.”
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